The Words of Jesus

Wayne S. Walker
There is a theory that has been developed and is going around among some brethren that the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually belong in the Old Testament, so that the teachings of Jesus contained in these books do not reveal New Testament doctrine to the church, but are simply his explanations of the Old Testament law and thus were applicable only to the Jews. We began discussing this idea in a previous article, in which we saw that while yes, Jesus did live and die under the Old Testament law, he also began making known certain aspects of his New Testament will even prior to his death, just as a testator draws up his will and may sometimes even reveal portions of it before he dies. But this whole concept raises a very important issue.
If it is true that what Jesus said during his personal ministry pertained only to the Jews under the Old Testament, how then can any of his teachings as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John be cited to establish truth that is relevant to us? Yet, we see that the New Testament writers of Acts through Revelation frequently appealed to the words and actions of Jesus while on earth in teaching the church. In Acts 20:35, Paul cited something that Jesus personally said as pertaining to the lives of Christians. We do not know exactly when Jesus spoke these words, because they are not recorded in the gospels (note John 21:25). However, the important point concerns how Paul, an inspired apostle, treated what Jesus himself said. Did he imply that it was simply an explanation of the Old Testament law, or did he use it in such a way as to show that it was something that is binding on Christians? Thus, it is important for us to determine how the New Testament writers viewed the words of Jesus.

We see that the apostles and prophets who wrote Acts through Revelation did indeed indicate that Jesus’ words and actions while on earth are binding on those under the New Testament. This is true concerning marriage (1 Cor. 7:10-12). Paul wrote, “I command, yet not I but the Lord.” What did the Lord teach? It was that a wife is not to depart from her husband and a husband is not to divorce his wife. Where did the Lord teach this? One place is found in Mark 10:6-12. We would conclude from Paul’s statement that in this passage Jesus spoke God’s general law for all mankind under his New Testament regarding the relationship between husband and wife. Then Paul wrote, “I, not the Lord, say.” Jesus did not specifically teach anything about the marriage relationship between a believer and an unbeliever, so Paul addressed that situation here by inspiration (note 1 Cor. 14:37). But we see that Paul appealed to Jesus’ teaching before his death to establish the truth regarding God’s general law for husband and wife.

This is also true concerning the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Upon what basis did Paul teach the Corinthians about the Lord’s supper? He did not say, “I am an inspired apostle; this is what I am telling you, so you must do what I tell you.” He could have done that, but rather, he appealed to the example of Jesus to establish the elements and the purpose of the Lord’s supper, even citing the very instance of its institution by the Lord as recorded in Matthew 26:26-29. The question must be asked, are these words of Jesus only an explanation of the Old Testament law applicable to the Jews? The answer is, absolutely not! Even though they were spoken before his death, he himself says that they are things that will be applicable in his kingdom, the church, after his death. If this is the case regarding his teaching on the Lord’s supper, why can it not be the case regarding his other teachings? Thus, we see that inspired apostles appealed to the teaching of Jesus before his death to establish God’s will for us today.

We also see that the apostles and prophets reveal that our salvation was first spoken by the Lord himself. This gets us back to the question that we discussed in our last article as to what Jesus came to reveal. Read Hebrews 2:1-4. The inspired writer is talking about the need to “give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard.” We know that he is not talking about Old Testament teaching, because he contrasts this with “the word spoken through angels.” Now, how do we learn the things to which we need to give earnest heed so as not to neglect the great salvation? The writer says that they began to be spoken by the Lord. Now, did the Lord himself speak only things which were applicable to the Jews under the Old Testament? According to the Hebrew writer, he spoke things which we, under the New Testament, need to hear and to which we should give the more earnest heed.

Sometimes the argument is made that Jesus came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; therefore, his teaching on earth was only preparing them for his coming kingdom by calling them back to keeping the Old Testament law and thus does not have any application to us. It is true that Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He even makes this statement in Matthew 15:21-24. However, in the context he is not talking about his teaching in general, but the sphere of his personal ministry, and most of all the miracles that he performed. The fact is that while Jesus was sent to prepare the Jews for his coming kingdom, he did so by announcing what would be required of people when they became citizens of that kingdom. Read Matthew 5:3-16. Is Jesus just explaining the Old Testament law here? No, in fact, in verses 17-20 he goes on to say that he would fulfil the Old Testament law. Jesus did not come to destroy the law, and as long as it was in effect he certainly taught the Jews to keep it. But he also began preparing people for his kingdom by speaking of things that relate to the great salvation that would be available in his kingdom after his death.

Then, we see that the apostles and prophets tell us that we must consent to the words of Jesus Christ. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul puts the “words of our Lord Jesus Christ” on a par with the “doctrine which accords with godliness,” and says that if a person will not consent to them both, he is a false teacher who needs to be withdrawn from. What does it mean to “consent”? The word in the original language means more than just agree with. We agree with the Old Testament as inspired Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). However, we are not under it and do not obey it. The literal meaning is “come to” (cf. Heb. 4:16, 1 Pet. 2:4). Thus, the idea is to come to the words of Jesus as applicable to us.  It would seem from this passage that any doctrine which says that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ were for the Jews only and not for us today would have to be wrong. Consider a couple of examples of the words of Jesus that apply to us today.

Jesus taught about worship (John 4:23-24). Do these words of Jesus apply to the Jews under the Old Testament or to Christians under the New Testament? They certainly did not apply to the Jews under the Old Testament because according to the law they had to worship in Jerusalem, whereas Jesus says that the hour is coming when the place of worship will not matter. These are some words of Jesus, spoken before his death, to which we must give consent. Also, Jesus taught about church discipline (Matt. 18:15-18). Do these words of Jesus only explain Old Testament law to the Jews or reveal New Testament doctrine to the church? One proponent of this theory affirms that “the church” in this passage is “the church in the wilderness,” a phrase used by Stephen to refer to the congregation of Israelites (Acts 7:38, KJV). However, there is absolutely nothing in the Old Testament that remotely resembles this instruction, and besides, Jesus had just not long before promised to build his church using very similar language (Matt. 16:18-19). So here we have some more words of Jesus, spoken during his earthly life, to which we must consent.

Sometimes the argument is made that if we start looking to the words of Jesus to establish New Testament doctrine, we have a problem because sometimes Jesus did speak specifically to the Jews about the Old Testament law, and thus we could never know for sure if what Jesus was saying is applicable only to the Jews or to us. We recognize that there were times when Jesus was talking to a Jew about some aspect of the Old Testament law, as he did with the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-17). However, that is not always the case. The context usually makes this quite plain. And, in fact, I would suggest that unless the context indicates otherwise, we had probably better take the words of Jesus, through whom God speaks to us today, as being New Testament doctrine and thus applicable to us.

Furthermore, we have this same so-called “problem” even with the rest of the New Testament from Acts through Revelation. There were times when Paul spoke specifically to the church at Corinth about miraculous spiritual gifts, and said some things that are not applicable to us today because we do not have those miraculous spiritual gifts. But, again, the context usually makes that clear, and it is not a big difficulty in most instances. Therefore, because Jesus Christ came to reveal God’s will to mankind and establish the New Testament, we need to pay attention to the words of Jesus, even the words that he spoke while on earth, because the inspired writers of the New Testament treat them as binding on the church which he built and about which he taught so much during his personal ministry.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 5 p22 March 2, 2000